Japan may not be the most expensive country on the planet, but it’s definitely on the upper end. When compared with its neighbors, it’s not even a contest; public transportation in Japan is roughly three times what it is in South Korea, and accommodations could be five to ten times what comparable rooms cost in Thailand. But while the country isn’t what many travelers consider practical when they’re on a budget, it’s certainly possible to see Japan without completely breaking the bank.
1. Fly into Osaka.
I get it: you want to see Tokyo. Everyone does at some point. The problem is, those same people also want to visit Kyoto, or even Hiroshima on the same trip. You may not be able to observe the weirdness of Yoyogi Park on a Sunday or the bright lights of Shinjuku, but Osaka is still very much the big city experience in Japan, and it has a castle in the middle you can actually walk inside (the Imperial Palace is closed on all but a few days of the year).
By doing so, you save yourself the $200+ USD it would cost for a round trip shinkansen ticket to Kyoto; instead, you could ride the local lines from Osaka for about $5 USD one way. You can pet the docile deer in Nara. Himeji Castle, arguably the most famous in the whole country, is only an hour away for 1500 yen. Buddhist temples on top of Mt. Koya are a nearby getaway.
2. When you can’t, take the bus.
Of course, sometimes flights to Osaka aren’t the easiest or cheapest to come by, and Tokyo is definitely more practical. Just keep in mind that flying into Narita will cost a few thousand yen extra to reach downtown Tokyo, while Haneda is only about 500-600 away.
If you do have to base yourself in Tokyo, try to limit your trips to those within the area; the Japan Rail Pass may offer unlimited travel for a certain number of days, but spending several hundred dollars on local transportation is a bit of an extravagance for travelers accustomed to SE Asia prices. Long-distance buses in Japan, while still pricey by these standards, can cut travel costs by plane or train almost in half.
3. Hitchhiking is also an option.
I had two Couchsurfers stay with me and manage to hitchhike all the way from Tochigi Prefecture to Aomori in a single day, in the rain -– normally a full day’s trip by train or car. I managed to hitchhike from Nagasaki to Kagoshima in the same time. While crime is not completely non-existent in Japan, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the country is generally safer for hitchhikers… as long as you’re willing to give your driver an English lesson en route.
4. Convenience store meals
Dining out in Japan will never be as cheap as Thailand, but finding cheap and nutritious meals is just as easy. While plenty of jihanki shokudo (vending machine restaurants) have curries and affordable rice and meat dishes, convenience stories let you mix and match small individually-packaged veggies, meat, and rice, just as if you were ordering in an izakaya. There’s also the option of visiting bigger supermarkets around closing time, when prepared foods are marked down 20%.
5. Sleeping outside
There are budget hotels like Toyoko Inn but even these can raise their rates for special events and demand. Capsule hotels starting at 2000-4000/night are safe for the most part but can stink of smoke and aren’t always available for female travelers.
If you want to be voluntarily homeless for your travels through Japan and it’s a temperate season, it’s not a bad idea to consider nojuku -– sleeping outside. The term applies to salarymen who sleep on benches after missing the last train of the evening, but also to those sleeping in parks, under bridges, etc.
Travelers should consider their own safety, of course, but with a dearth of violent crime in Japan, nojuku, or at least camping in the countryside, is a viable option. Cheap showers are usually available at bathhouses the following morning, and many convenience stores have public restrooms.